Responding in Kind?

"Moscow does not negotiate with terrorists -- it destroys them."


-- President Vladimir Putin responding to Friday's terror attack

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About this time last year, a group of 15 armed and masked men -- from their accents, Russian soldiers -- arrived at the home of a Chechen family and seized two brothers, Kharon and Aslanbek.

At a detention center in Grozny, Aslanbek was interrogated and beaten. His nose was broken with a heavy metal flashlight, his back and face beaten with rifle butts.

The next day he was loaded into a car -- with the corpse of his brother, Kharon -- and driven to an abandoned chemical plant. His tormentors tied him and his dead brother to timed explosives, shot him in the head and left. However, the head wound had been a near-miss -- merely superficial. Aslanbek worked free of his bonds and brought his brother's body home.

That case, as recounted by New York-based Human Rights Watch, is just one of many atrocities by Russian forces documented last year.

For last February, the Russian human rights group Memorial documented 41 "disappearances" -- cases in which people were taken into custody and never heard from again. All told, Memorial documented 269 disappearances in 2003, of which several dozen have turned up as corpses.

Put aside guerrillas being gunned down in fire fights, or women and children caught in the regrettable crossfire; put aside those who stepped on mines, or succumbed to war-zone diseases; put aside kidnappings or arrests where the victims were ransomed, or freed, or at least formally accounted for. Consider only the disappearances (people last seen alive being led away by men with guns and never heard from again) and these alone have been averaging about 22 victims every month.

And that's a conservative undercount. Memorial is only able to document a fraction of atrocities in Chechnya -- a patch of mud and mountains in the Caucasus still too dangerous for a United Nations mission. Memorial guesses that for every documented atrocity, two or three go unrecorded. That works out to an average of 66 to 88 disappearances each month. (That jibes with figures from the Kremlin-approved Chechen administration, which last August was already reporting 400 disappearances, plus dozens of mass graves containing the remains of about 3,000 civilians.)

So on top of the landmines and diseases and such, there have been 22 or 44 or 66 or maybe 88 disappearances every month, for more than a year now, with no end in sight. In terms of tragedy and death, that's in the ballpark of one Moscow metro bombing every month.

But the metro bombing was carried out, presumably, by a group of criminals -- people we really have no control over. It was immediately and loudly denounced by the entire world. Even the London representative of Chechen president-in-exile Aslan Maskhadov condemned it. The Kremlin declared a national day of mourning and accepted condolences from governments on every continent.

The Chechen disappearances, by contrast, were ultimately carried out not by unaccountable criminals, but by a democratically elected government -- Vladimir Putin's. They occurred with little comment or complaint, even as they were exhaustively documented in reports to the UN and other bodies.

And no doubt this all fed the determination of crazed extremists who, upon seeing the callous murder of their own by outsiders, said things like, "We don't negotiate with Russians -- we destroy them."

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, covered the first war in Chechnya for the Los Angeles Times.